Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Camden Council backs Kentish Town City Farm - it isn't closing!

There is a petition circulating from 38Degrees started by someone called Tom Langton-Lockton (apparently a.k.a. erstwhile Mayoral candidate, Tom Ecologist a.k.a. the British Art Shamanasking people to "save" Kentish Town City Farm from Camden council.

This online petition has come out of the blue and no attempt has been made by the co-ordinator to contact the Town Hall to see what the situation actually is - scaring lots of local residents unnecessarily.

The petition has already attracted over 3000 signatures, it states:

"The Farm has already lost £40,000 in funding and is being pushed towards market led corporate events. Less time will be available to teach the children, heal the depressed and combat the ethos of greed. Those who see value only in money are trying to subvert that which is ours, nature, community, beauty and health. These things are given to us free of charge at birth."

There are other statements in the comments which are just not true - such as one by the co-ordinator that we are planning to sell the land "to build homes for the rich." 

The Farm emailed me today to distance itself from the petition - and we exchanged further emails on taking things forward and developing new business plans: as we have an amicable relationship. 

We've been in discussions with the Farm about future funding, I visited the Farm last month to talk through what was needed.  The Farm asked me for a financial concession to help them out, which I delivered for them.  

Obviously we've asked the Farm to draw up a plan to get external funding in - it previously received almost 100% its money from the state - but we are committed to continuing its funding (as per our decision on 24th July) and helping it diversify its funding sources - charities with animals working in deprived areas should have no problem doing this.   

The council faces another £50m of cuts from 2015 but we are taking special steps to help the Farm and a number of other special organisations (Coram's Fields).

Our statement released today reads:

"As a Gospel Oak ward councillor and Cabinet member for Finance I understand peoples' love for the City Farm and their desire to see it succeed, if Kentish Town City Farm were ever under threat of closure Camden would be at one with everyone preventing this. 

Camden Council is a hugely supportive of the City Farm, the Trustees and the exceptional work they have undertaken within the local community for many years.  
I can categorically deny that the farm is under threat due to funding withdrawal.  In addition,  I should protest against the statement made by the co-ordinator of the petition that the land will be sold "to build homes for the rich."  This is utterly untrue and is scaremongering at a low order.

The City Farm has written to us about the petition, saying:
"...please be assured that this is no way an official policy or action of the Farm's trustees, nor is it the doing or position of the Farm's staff."  
As I hope you will appreciate, I and the Farm's trustees and staff remain committed to constructive engagement with Camden Council, charitable trusts and the private sector to ensure the Farm's long term viability."  
Historically, the Farm cost the taxpayer, roughly the same as a neighbourhood library to run.  In 2011 the Farm was granted £260,000 of funding from the council's special Camden People’s Fund as we rightly gave them support to diversify their income stream and become more financially resilient in a time when Camden Council is suffering £130m funding cuts over 6 years from central government.  That year, unlike the Farm, many other community groups lost all of their council funding.  

Following a meeting with me last month, we agreed to re-phase the money so it could be brought forward to help with current finances. 

Kentish Town City Farm is likely to be a beneficiary of Town Hall planning gain money from a nearby regeneration project to help it invest in needed infrastructure and improvements.  This not the sign of the Council backing away from Farm now and in the future.

In addition to providing advice to the farm on improving the way in which they operate, the Council is exploring further future support from the £300,000 Open Spaces for Young People fund created by Camden’s Cabinet on 24 July. We hope that this offer will not only provide further financial support to landmark open spaces such as Kentish Town City Farm, but will enable to us to be a more engaged investor in our community-managed local open spaces and design a bespoke programme of support for them.

In the meantime the City Farm should benefit from everyone's goodwill expressed so far - so I'd urge everyone who cares to personally donate to the City Farm via its website, and encourage their friends to do so or ask them what other help they need https://mydonate.bt.com/charities/kentishtowncityfarmltd - if we could covert the local and online community's support into pounds and pence it would help invest in the future of the Farm even more.  

I trust this clarifies the matter - we of course are always willing to talk the Farm, its users and people concerned about its future in any forum, as we always have been.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Opportunistic Camden Lib Dems complain about sale of cemetery homes they vacated and sold

Following on from the last story on the cemetery worker accommodation Camden council owns in St.Pancras Cemetery in Barnet, Camden's shamelessly opportunistic Lib Dems have tried to muddy the waters by claiming this old, out-of-borough cemetery workers lodgings is actually a council flat and therefore we have somehow breached our manifesto commitment not to auction council homes.

"Astonished" Cllr Chris Naylor, architect of the hated council house auctions policy in the last administration, writes to the CNJ calling for a "full investigation" into property sales.

He might as well call for a full investigation into himself - as his Cabinet 2006-2010 presided over the sale of two properties adjacent to this, which went for similar prices, something he neglects to mention to local people.

Data released by the council shows two neighbouring properties sold by the Lib Dem-led Cabinet in 2006 and again in 2009:

310 High Road sold 21/12/2006. £305,000
320 High Road sold 17/06/2009. £240,000  

The empty flats, themselves vacated by the Lib Dems, were not deemed suitable to transfer to social landlords nor repair for use as council flats, not by us but by the Lib Dems.

Moreover, as these properties are not part of Camden's housing portfolio (they are assets held by what is known as the 'general fund') - the money raised wouldn't even go to housing it would go to the council's general reserves. 

Under Labour the money forms part of our disposals plan to help to repair schools after BSF budgets were cut by the Coalition Government.  The Lib Dems haven't told us what they would've spent these reserves on.

What a mess.

Frankly, Camden Lib Dems have been smarting since 2010, when their policy of selling 500 council homes at auction was publicly reversed by Labour.

Labour campaigned to scrap the policy and took a stand because we believe in investing in council housing - we are now building an extra 1100 council homes.

We also felt - if the truth be now known - along with several Conservative backbenchers (who regularly supplied Labour with information about these private sales against their coalition partners) that the policy meant properties were in danger of being 'flipped' by private speculators and not value for money. 

The unpopularity of the Lib Dems across London is down to the public seeing through their shameless opportunism. 

The Camden Lib Dems are no different.  

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Camden Labour isn't reverting to hated auctioning of council homes

Contrary to the CNJ's article (18th July, "Investigation launched into how Town Hall sold off council home without housing chiefs realising"), Camden's Labour administration has not reverted to the hated policy of the Tories and Lib Dems of auctioning council homes.  The property referred to was a 'tied cottage' linked to the cemetery there, a relic of yesteryear where cemetery workers lived on site and rented properties a cheaper prices in exchange for labour. 

Camden is actually building new council homes - with the first coming in Chester Balmore and Bacton - and over 1100 extra are planned over the next 4 years, the biggest council house building programme since the late 1970s.  

318 High Road Barnet N2 is a semi-detached Grade II listed former cemetery workers lodge located within St Pancras cemetery in Barnet.  Accommodation is in basic unmodernised condition and is adjacent to the exit gates at the cemetery: one of four similar former operational buildings that were built for and occupied by cemetery staff. Two of the adjacent properties have been sold, and one is still in use by a retired cemetery worker. It is held in the General Fund, not the housing fund.

The tied cottage became vacant in January 2010, under the previous administration, and was no longer required for operational use by cemetery staff.  No other operational use was identified. It was not considered viable for an social landlord to fund an acquisition for social rented accommodation. The property was considered for appropriation for direct letting as social housing by the Council, but similarly this was not recommended as a viable option due to the out of borough location, small size, higher than average maintenance liability due to its Grade II listing, and other costs.

The property was also consecrated and the application to the Bishop of London to obtain a deconsecration order took considerable time.

The premises were occupied by squatters on 10th July whose representative initially stated that they were protesting against sales by Barnet Council, but then stated they were protesting against sales of property by Camden. The squatters were removed by police, after we called them, and the sale is due to complete in accordance with the sale contract. The property sold for £304,000 and the receipts will be used to repair our primary and secondary schools.

While no council home has been sold by Labour, the Tories and Lib Dems have put in place policies which mean there are more right to buys, with losses only offset by the building we are doing.  

More councils follow Camden's lead banning payday adverts from public networks

Plymouth council is the latest in a line of councils to follow the lead taken by Haringey, Camden and Chester in barring payday lenders from websites, and taking the extra step in also banning them from billboards and bus-shelters.

Under Camden's plans access to the websites of payday loan companies have been blocked on all council-run IT (public and corporate) networks in the borough.

In addition to barring pay day sites from public computers in libraries and council buildings, the Town Hall has been able to go one step further and extend the initiative across its recently launched free Wi-Fi network available to residents on their mobiles and laptops.

Camden's blocked a blacklist of the top payday websites.  Also included the following websites that are new big players in the given sphere: e.g. www.mrlender.com www.moolauk.com www.beeloans.co.uk

Monday, 22 July 2013

G4S shows it’s time for a UK False Claims Act

My article from Labourlist last week

The latest G4S scandal, currently being investigated poses the question: are there enough safeguards against the public purse being ripped off?

With the government pressing a privatisation and outsourcing agenda, the public need to be reassured that taxpayers’ money can be protected against wrongdoers.  

Emily Thornberry MP’s paper on Serious Fraud and White Collar Crime, based on experience from U.S. states, certainly advances Labour’s position – but do we need to consider further steps?

The False Claims Act is an American federal law that imposes liability on federal contractors who defraud the government during the course of their work.

Also called the "Lincoln Law", it was initially passed in the 1860s as a response to the government being ripped off by unscrupulous contractors during the Civil War. Subsequent amendments and modifications have expanded the scope following scandals in military and civilian procurement.

The law includes a "Qui Tam" provision, actually based on our own 14th century English Common Law, ordinary citizens to file actions on behalf of the government.  Qui tam is an abbreviated form of the Latin legal phrase qui tam pro domino rege quam pro se ipso in hac parte sequitur ("he who brings a case on behalf of our lord the King, as well as for himself"). 

Those filing under the Act stand to receive a portion (usually about 15–25%) of any recovered damages.  Claims under the Act have typically involved healthcare, military, or other government spending programs, as well as large pharmaceutical settlements.

A total of £22 billion was recovered under Qui Tam suits during the last decade, sending a strong signal to actual and potential wrongdoers.

In 1998 Labour brought in the Public Interest Disclosure Act, which protected public interest whistleblowers against detriment after similar laws in America.  In America whistleblower laws are supplemented by the False Claims Act – so why don’t we do it here?

The answer is that at some point the policy makers and judges decided that providing incentives for whistleblowers was an ‘un-British’ thing to do.  Despite having a firm foundation in the English Common Law going back to decisions in 1318, Qui Tam was effectively eradicated her between the end of the 19th century and 1950.

The opinions about whistleblowing from the middle of the last century may not be useful in a public services arena with large and expanding corporate players.

Whether the private sector expands into further public sector work or not, the sheer extent to which the NHS, Whitehall and local authorities already purchases billions of pounds of services from the private sector calls for more concrete action to secure value for money and prevent scams from happening in the first place. 

It’s time for Labour to bring the False Claims Act home.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Camden to becomes first council in England to introduce Computer Programming Clubs in Primary Schools

From September, Camden plans to introduce computer programming after school clubs in all of the 41 maintained primary schools in its borough, the first initiative of its kind in London.

See Camden on BBC News here.

Working in partnership with Code Club - a not for profit organisation responsible for establishing a national network of 900 volunteer-led, after-school coding clubs - Camden Council aims to give the children in the borough an early opportunity to develop the creativity and skills necessary to succeed at school and in the future jobs market.

Other organisations involved in the partnership are Google and UCL (University College London) who will be providing volunteers for the scheme. Expert developers from Google and students from UCL’s Faculty of Engineering Sciences will run the after-school coding clubs for the children.

The initiative provides a unique opportunity for pupils in Camden’s primary schools to learn to code from a global leader in the technology business and a world renowned higher education institution, and also allows their teachers to establish strong cross sector relationships and to harness the support of volunteers based in the local area.

Last year there were no pupils in Camden’s schools taking computing at A-level. As in other local authorities, pupils have been put off by a boring ICT curriculum and a failure to make coding relevant and exciting. Camden wants to lead the way in changing this, taking advantage of the new curriculum.

With a new curriculum coming in next year there is a new buzz from our fast-developing tech sector. Voluntary initiatives like Code Club will help embed the learning happening in our schools, allowing kids to code and create apps for themselves outside of the classroom and start a love of programming from an early age.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Vote for Theo

There are exciting elections to get a London representative on the Association of Labour Councillors executive - to shape our views to the national party.

I am one of the approved candidates, and would very much appreciate your vote as voting starts today and goes on for the rest of the month!

http://www.votebyinternet.com/alc2013 (you need your special passcode sent to your membership email address)

Here's my pitch:

I’m a passionate believer in the redistribution of power away from Whitehall and back to local communities.  In a country with an unwritten constitution, local democracy is a vital part of our checks and balances - yet since 2010 the Conservatives further eroded this through front-loaded cuts and even more central control over local budgets.

People trust public services more when accountable to their community, so it is vital that the next Labour manifesto repatriate powers and money from Whitehall to our Town Halls.

I am Cabinet member for Finance in Camden, and a councillor for 11 years.  Local government is where we come up with solutions:  I have developed a capital programme of council house building (1100 homes) and school repairs; campaigned on the impacts of the Cap and Bedroom Tax; and tackled digital exclusion and access to hi-tech jobs. These would be my priority areas if elected.